Slender Man & Christian Credulity

By now you have surely heard that two 12 year old girls in Wisconsin lured one of their friends into the woods where they stabbed the victim 19 times and left her for dead. And you have also surely heard that the girls did this because they wanted to curry favor with a fictional internet character known as Slenderman.

This horrific event has of course prompted all the usual hand-wringing about the ailments of American culture. For many pundits, this hand-wringing is better described as national soul-searching. I mean this literally and not figuratively. The Chicago Tribune asks: “What kind of culture produced those two 12-year old Wisconsin girls charged with stabbing a classmate 19 times?” The simple answer: “Our culture.” The Tribune describes this (Christian) culture as one beholden to fantasy but bereft of religion:

It is a culture that has fallen in love with magic and fantasy. It is a culture that takes fantasy symbols of evil — the vampire, the witch — and transforms them into heroes of great virtue. It is a culture where dark magic is celebrated, but religion is considered bothersome. We reap what we sow. Once, Dracula would take our immortal souls. These days, souls aren’t discussed much, perhaps because the mention of souls will offend somebody.

The Tribune then tells us, with no apparent sense of irony or dissonance, that those who can “distinguish between fantasy and reality” know that Slenderman is not real. Souls, however, are.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel similarly wonders “what went wrong.” Again, the diagnosis is cryptically framed in Christian terms:

“The bad part of me” for 12-year-old Anissa Weier allegedly erupted in violence and became headlines. Just weeks earlier, her friend, Morgan Geyser, is reported to have drawn a picture of the fictional online character Slender Man on a napkin at a restaurant, and her obsession seemed amusing. Frightening things happen to “the bad part” of us when our psyches confuse fantasy and reality.

There are dark parts of the soul in each and every one of us. This is the longstanding historic Christian view of human nature. Unpleasant but true. The darkness can be simple ignorance, solved by bringing more light into the situation. For some, darkness has become the living space for evil. Another kind of darkness is delusion, unpredictable and dangerous. If the allegations are true, the suspects seem to have been deluded in that they utterly confused reality and fantasy.

From this supremely unironic point of view, the problem is that some Americans (presumably the lapsed Christians and non-Christians) are “deluded” and unable to distinguish between “reality” and “fantasy.” For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the suggested fix is to tend to our “souls” and “take our spiritual lives seriously.”

It seems not to have occurred to these writers (and many more like them) that the problem here is that American culture, predominantly Christian, takes invisible agents or “spiritual lives” all too seriously. So seriously, in fact, that many Americans cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Is it any wonder that these 12 year old girls from Wisconsin believed that Slenderman is real? How does Slenderman differ from the Holy Ghost or Spirit? The difference, according to Pastor Robin Swope, is that Slenderman is a demon. In his book Slenderman: From Fiction to Fact, Pastor Swope tells us that Slenderman is not just fantasy or myth: he is an active demonic force. For those who think that Swope is a crackpot who can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, let’s consider his credentials:

Pastor Swope has been a Christian Minister for more than 20 years in both Mainline and Evangelical Denominations. He holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Nyack College and an M.Div. in Pastoral Ministry with an emphasis on Pastoral Counseling from Alliance Theological Seminary. He has served as a Missionary to Burkina Faso, and has Ministered to the homeless in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. He is currently the Pastor of Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Given that Pastor Swope and millions of other American Christians believe that Slenderman actually exists and is a spirit or demon, why should we expect two 12 year old girls from Wisconsin to believe any differently?

When the Chicago Tribune claimed that “our culture” was to blame for these girls’ inability to distinguish between “fantasy and reality,” it got things only partially right. The Tribune should have said: “our Christian culture.” It is a culture in which the majority of people believe that God, Satan, angels, and demons actually exist. America is a spirit-filled place, where invisible agents run rampant, making it difficult even for adults to distinguish between fantasy and reality. How, in this fantastic milieu, can we hold these 12 year old girls to a different standard (or call them “deluded” and “mentally ill”) for believing in Slenderman?

This is not, unfortunately, just a rhetorical question. The prosecutors, most probably Christians, have charged the 12 year old girls “as adults” for the attempted murder. Believing in Satan is one thing (for adults); believing in Slenderman (for children) is something else altogether. May ironies never cease.


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21 thoughts on “Slender Man & Christian Credulity

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Excellent points, but a culture that celebrates murder is to be criticized — be it Biblical or Secular. Sure the Bible does it, but just as we get them away from that, we substitute other things.

    I don’t allow my kids to do any shooter games. If they want to be violent, they can do it on the ball field.

  2. Bob Wells

    I’m not sure I see a connection between beliefs in the supernatural and this kind of abnormal behavior. As far a we know nearly all aboriginal peoples believed in a world full of supernatural spirits, but I don’t think there is any indication that this kind of behavior existed at all, much less to the degree it occurs in modern times.

    If the religions of the hunter-gatherers didn’t cause it, why would the religions of today? I suspect that these behaviors are the inevitable result of “civilization” not religion. They only began when humans first started to practice agriculture and gather in cities.

    Blaming supernatural beliefs may be short-sighted. Civilization twisted religions into the monstrous forms they are today and it’s civilization that’s the root cause of the darkness and disease that grows in the heart of modern man. As a very wise man said,

    “A man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; lack of respect for growing, living things soon leads to a lack of respect for humans too.” Luther Standing Bear

    The last 20,000 years backs those words up 100%! We’re doing everything in our power to control and kill the planet. To me that’s at the root of why 12 year old girls can stab each other and not know any better.

    If we went back to believing that supernatural spirits lived in everything in nature and so everything in nature should be reverenced, those behaviors would stop! It’s not supernatural beliefs, it’s supernatural beliefs in the wrong things.

  3. Cris Post author

    I’m not blaming supernatural or “invisible agent” beliefs for what happened in this case. I don’t think anyone knows why the girls did this, though if I had to bet, I’d say there is an underlying parenting problem.

    The point of this post is pretty simple. It revolves around the fact that major media organizations in the US are editorializing the case and making the following argument: (1) the girls believed in an obviously fictitious character or invisible agent, (2) they believed this because American culture is awash in fantasy beliefs and magical thinking, (3) the girls were clearly unable to distinguish between “fantasy and reality,” (4) if the girls had just been schooled in or serious about Christian religion and tended to their “souls,” then (5) the girls would not have done this. The girls are being called “deluded” and “mentally disordered” for believing in Slenderman by the same people who believe in a whole pantheon of invisible agents and supernatural ghosts.

    My rejoinder point is also simple and revolves around the irony of the preceding argument. These girls are being taken to task for believing in an invisible agent “who is obviously fictitious” and for failing to “distinguish between reality and fantasy.” The people making this argument are simultaneously suggesting that the girls would not have done this if they had been good Christians. In other words, if the girls believed in the “right kind” of invisible agents, this would not have happened.

    This argument is hugely ironic, if not ridiculous. If the girls had been taught that supernatural or invisible agents are fiction and fantasy, they might have been in a better position to evaluate Slenderman. But the girls live in a culture where the majority of adults assert the reality of supernatural agents. Given this, why should we be surprised that they believed Slenderman was real? We shouldn’t be.

    So I cannot agree with your conclusion that “it’s supernatural beliefs in the wrong things.” This is just another variant of the argument I am critiquing. If these girls had been schooled in nature spirits, they still would have been prone to supernatural beliefs in invisible agents.

    Those who hold such beliefs sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between “fantasy and reality.” Or at least this is what we are being told by Christian pundits and the media.

  4. Gyrus

    I’m speaking from a British point of view, so I know I have to bear in mind that the role and nature of Christian belief in society is very different in my experience from the experience of Americans. But I think there’s something important being missed here, which is the role that the “naturalist” scientific worldview may well play in the kind of dynamic that leads to tragedies like this.

    To my mind, this is about the ongoing tussle between religion and science that has a long history, but which really kicked off around 400 years ago. As the Age of Enlightenment gathered pace, there was a war against the imagination, which, along with religion, was deemed to be the root of the world’s ills. One Fellow of the Royal Society, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Parker, blamed metaphor for the era’s tumult, writing in 1670: “Had we but an Act of Parliament to abridge Preachers the use of fulsom and luscious Metaphors, it might perhaps be an effective Cure of all our present Distempers.” Obviously there was much in the religion of the time to be criticized and attacked, but zeroing in on metaphor seems to epitomize the wrong-headed way in which science often went about it. I think we find here some kind of seed of religious fundamentalism. The split between science and religion that the Copernican Revolution initiated spawned two opposed but complementary dogmas: belief in the reality of abstractly-modelled matter, and belief in the reality of spirit.

    What was eventually sidelined as a result of this split was, not coincidentally, enjoying a real (ahem) renaissance around this time. The imagination – an inherently diverse field perhaps united by a belief in the manifold nature of reality, and a sophisticated apprehension of metaphor that gave mental images reality, but also never crassly reified them – was alive in the work of people like Ficino, Bruno, Pico della Mirandola. It was there in Copernicus, to a degree, certainly in Kepler, and in Newton (though crucially, in Newton it was largely kept secret in his alchemical journals, demonstrating the reality of the split underway). Scientists in the nineteenth century championed Bruno as a martyr to the fight against the Church’s refusal to embrace new discoveries, but he was burned more for his animist views of Earth than for his Copernicanism – and in any case, his Copernicanism was strongly Hermetic (as Frances Yates said, for Bruno the Copernican diagram was “a hieroglyph”.)

    Now, I can easily accept the probability that the contents of the imagination are emergent phenomena resulting from the complex interactions of neurochemicals, in turn interacting with stimuli brought to them via the senses. The fact that we really don’t know aside, to call that “reality” and every other image of the world “unreal” seems simple-minded to me. There’s a psychological weight to the notion of “reality”, and giving all that weight to the abstractly modelled and, for sure, frequently testable scientific view, denies other kinds of reality, realities which are psychic rather than material, but no less effectual in life. And when those psychic realities are experienced, if someone comes to them from the position that they’re either “real” or “unreal”, many will decide they’re “real” – in the very same literalist sense that scientists view their abstract models of atoms and molecules. To a certain extent, naturalist science breeds, or at least bolsters and stimulates, supernaturalist religion. And for both, the liminal subtleties of the imagination are anathema.

    I wouldn’t say it was the “Christian culture” or the “atheist scientific culture” that fostered this kind of tragedy, but the culture in which these are the only sanctioned options, the only alternatives in a dualist idea of “reality”. The proliferation of frequently woolly-minded “fantasy” in our culture is the desperation of the imagination to find life for itself. There is often a dominance of “dark” fantasy figures because this whole realm has been demonized by religion and dismissed by science. There isn’t enough sophistication in the atheist attempt to lump fairy tales, fantasy, and religion into one “supernaturalist” box, and I think in doing so in order to attack religion, one is preaching psychological illiteracy. We probably do need to pay more attention to the soul, but not the meagre literalist soul offered by religion. Rather, the soul explored by James Hillman and other intelligent post-Jungians (and many great artists). A perspective rather than an essentialized immaterial substance, a perspective that appreciates the many levels of reality and the reality of felt experience.

    I think there’s a lot to Bob Wells’ point above, but in my mind it’s less about different kinds of religion than about the fact that “religion” came along with civilization, and the hunter-gatherer animist mode that dominated before agriculture was (as Cris often says here) a worldview more than a religion. I think there’s a strong parallel here between the Hillmanian soul as “perspective” vs. the Christian soul as “essence”, and the animist “worldview” vs. civilized “religion”. It’s very complex, but I suspect a serious study of the way that metaphor and reality are handled by hunter-gatherer cultures would reveal interesting parallels with the tradition of the imagination that has quietly battled the science-and-religion monopoly since Bruno was martyred.

  5. Chris Kavanagh

    Just came across your blog and while I sympathise with your frustration at the hypocrisy of some media pundits, I think you veer close to sensationalist rhetoric yourself when you claim “Given that Pastor Swope and millions of other American Christians believe that Slenderman actually exists and is a spirit or demon”. That Pastor Swope believes it, I don’t doubt but ‘millions of other Americans’, where is the evidence for that?

    I also doubt that it is the existence of supernatural beliefs of society that prevented the girls from disentangling reality from fantasy considering that if that was true, this kind of thing should be much more common. Demonising popular fantasy, as the media articles you cite do, is just as misguided as demonising/trying to attribute the blame for this horrific event to Christian beliefs.

    P.S. Hello Sabio!

  6. Cris Post author

    While we don’t yet have a Gallup poll on this issue, I know large numbers of Pentecostals-Evangelicals who believe that Slenderman is demonic. This seems to be a consensus view among them and if you visit any of their web forums, you will find this view. Given that there are many millions of Pentecostals and Evangelicals in the US, my assertion is probably sound.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that these millions who think Slenderman is demonic are drawn from the 138 million Americans who are young earth creationists and the 40 million Americans who believe Obama is the Antichrist.

    As I’ve made clear in the comments since writing this post, I’m not blaming Christian beliefs for this event. I’m simply reversing the logic of Christian pundits-media and demonstrating that this logic also applies to the full panoply of Christianity’s invisible agents.

  7. Chris Kavanagh

    I’d be wary about interpreting the typical beliefs of a community from the views of its vocal adherents. However, I take your point that I could well be underestimating the relative ease with which the slenderman myth could be incorporated into existing evangelical cosmological beliefs and I fully recognise that my exposure to American evangelicals is limited… so perhaps I’m biased by the fact that millions of Americans believing that a character from an invented internet meme is real is a rather depressing concept. It could certainly be true though, although for now I’ll remain cautiously optimistic.

    Oh and I also understood your rational for reversing the logic (and sympathise with your frustration!) but I still think the reversed argument ends up being just as fallacious as the original. I think it’s more likely that Christian beliefs are a largely irrelevant factor in relation to either being the cause or the cure for the actions of these kids.

  8. Larry Stout

    Hmmm. Let’s start with what “started” with agriculture and “civilization”. There was no metamorphosis, and it didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen with everyone, and it still isn’t complete for everyone. Just what basis is there for presuming to know, even approximately, what was involved in the very complex, protracted, and uneven process (still not universal!). Then, let’s dump the baseless Christianity-is-good-notwithstanding-that-Christians-may-go-bad presumption. Then, let’s pay no attention — at all — to journalists, who are trained in talking and writing, but very seldom have a thoroughgoing education, and very seldom evince constrained reasoning, instead always striving for sensation, not to mention personal display.

    I favor the simple explanation that H, sapiens is not far removed by evolution from the murderous chimp. And I cite all of history as irrefutable evidence. The details of individual murders are…mere details.

  9. Bob Wells

    “I favor the simple explanation that H, sapiens is not far removed by evolution from the murderous chimp. And I cite all of history as irrefutable evidence. The details of individual murders are…mere details.”

    I don’t agree with the factual basis of this statement:

    1) There is every reason to believe the “murderous chimp” is a myth. Jane Goddall brought us that idea but there is every reason to believe that she unintentionally drastically changed their environment and turned them into murderous chimps. Before she arrived they spent their days foraging individually in the woods, she started feeding them which gave them something to fight and kill over, which they did. That does not detract from her many accomplishments.
    2) History does indeed show humans to consistently be capable of monstrous acts and being murderous chimps. But Prehistory (to the best of our limited knowledge) does not show that at all. Most hunter-gatherer societies were very egalitarian and truly “civilized” in their behaviors.

    To me, the clear lesson is that as long as we are hunter-gatherers, our violent murderous chimp nature is suppressed and unneeded. But when our environment changes and we have excess, then we fight each other. The more excess, the more murderous we become.

  10. Chris Kavanagh


    First, Jane Goodall has probably done more than almost any other researcher to challenge the various myths about common chimpanzees. However, the fact that they are a violent species is not really in dispute- Bonobos are less violent but Jane Goodall wasn’t studying Bonobos. Common chimpanzees live in troops and hunt communally, Jane Goodall didn’t create their social structure or their hunting behaviour she just documented it.

    Second, I think its rather naive to imagine that hunter gatherers in prehistory lived in idyllic peaceful communities and that it is only with modern society that our ‘murderous tendencies’ developed. You could certainly make the case that civilisation has allowed us to develop more efficient and effective means of murdering people and thus to commit genocides that would have been practically impossibilities in previous eras. But that doesn’t mean that HG societies were free from violence- see for instance, Steven Pinker’s new book for some relevant comparisons between ancient and modern societies.

  11. Gyrus

    Cris, Bob’s right about Goodall. The issue is obviously complex, but it’s well documented that her studying methods distorted the chimps’ “natural” social structure. I put the scare quotes there because even thinking about their “natural” state, there’s a danger of thinking that there’s only one state in which they live, when in fact there is variation (and I’m talking here about variation between different groups of common chimps, not variation between them and bonobos). The best succinct source on all this I’ve found is this critical review of Margaret Power’s book The Egalitarians: Human and Chimpanzee. I’ve not read Power’s book, but this review is very useful. Of this book, the reviewer says:

    Despite its faults, it is founded on a true and troubling statement: “Despite more than 30 years of study … there is no firm agreement as to the social organization of [chimpanzees]” … Territorial conflict and closed communities at Gombe and Mahale do not preclude carnivals and open social networks at other sites, and vice versa.

    And this is before getting onto the well-documented (though occasionally overstated) peaceable ways of the bonobo. I say overstated because some people gleefully seize data about a bonobo being violent and take it as an argument against bonobos being peaceable. Needless to say, this is just part of a pointless merry-go-round of polarized nonsense. But once you step off the merry-go-round, there still are points to be made. And an important point is that the supposed “murderous” character of our ape heritage is transparently partial, usually set up against a straw man, and usually more ideological than is admitted.

    As for HG violence, Pinker’s work is interesting in some respects, but dubious when it comes to HGs. I’ve written a lot about this. My main snippet of evidence against Pinker is about his use of stats about murder rates among modern HGs. Even putting aside the incredibly complex issue of how indicative they are about HG life in the Palaeolithic, these stats are deceptive (as they say, lies, damned lies, and…). Because of the small social scale, a murder rate among the !Kung that rivals modern urban hotspots actually pans out to one murder every 15-20 years. Granted, as an individual, you might have just as high a chance of being murdered in a !Kung band – when that murder comes around – as being murdered in day-to-day life. But what these stats say about social life is very different. Raymond Kelly remarks in Warless Societies and the Origin of War:

    “Thus [despite the statistically high murder rate] the general tenor of daily social relations observed by the ethnographer can readily be a strongly positive one of friendship, camaraderie, and communal sharing that is very rarely disrupted by argument or physical fighting.” (p. 22)

    Of course relative (per capita) stats as opposed to absolute stats are vital in discussing issues like this. But they’re not the whole story. I think this contrast between the “risk for the individual” perspective and the “effects on social life” perspective is interesting, because it reveals precisely the contrast between modern atomized individualism and HG communal egalitarianism. And it’s the tip of an iceberg of problems with Pinker’s work, which relies far too heavily on Chagnon’s heavily disputed work with the Yanomami, and Lawrence Keeley’s work, which in turn deals very little with simple mobile HGs, and mostly with complex or sedentary HGs. The latter distinction is central to any discussion about HG violence, and Raymond Kelly’s book is the best reference for this. More generally, the fairest commentator on the issue of prehistoric violence I’ve found is R. Brian Ferguson. The fact that he’s painted as a crazy Rousseauian by many is just a reflection of the tenor of much of this debate.

  12. Gyrus

    One correction: “Granted, as an individual, you might have just as high a chance of being murdered in a !Kung band – when that murder comes around – as being murdered in day-to-day life” should have “in one of those modern urban areas” at the end.

  13. Larry Stout

    When I was a kid, we were taught that humans did nothing by instinct, which was something that controlled animal behavior, but not ours. Plainly, that was a false doctrine. Basic human needs have been boiled down to (1) personal survival (fight or flight), (2) safety (sheltering), and a couple of others. The fight can involve combat with large animals, or with other people, and it can (very often does!) involve killing.

    As for the part played by religion, well, I often find that a little wryness goes a long way in stating a fundamental principle. As the T-shirt reads…

    “God was my co-pilot, but we crashed on a mountaintop and I had to eat him.”

  14. Chris Kavanagh


    Thanks for the detailed response but I still feel rather confident in stating that, despite debates over their precise social structure, significant violence being inherent in common chimpanzee communities is not a controversial issue amongst the vast majority of primatologists. There are debates about over things like how rare infanticide by females is but on the issue of male dominance hierarchies, hunting behaviours and territory disputes involving significant violence I disagree that there is no consensus. Similarly while Jane Goodal’s research methods certainly impacted the social behaviour of the chimpanzees in Gombe, this wouldn’t account for the consistencies in findings from the various other established field sites. The review you cite from the 90s also makes it clear that it finds the argument presented by Power severely flawed and extremely unlikely to be true but still worthy of consideration, however that was 20 years ago, we have a lot more data now and I don’t think the arguments hold any more water today.

    And in regards the HG issue, I agree that the issue is complex and polarised and also that you can raise arguments against the data Pinker cites. However, my own research of the relevant literature has led me to a rather different conclusion than you, based on a quick look through your ebook. I don’t for instance find that the majority of the criticisms levelled at Chagnon’s work are compelling but I do recognise that this is the default position in social/cultural anthropology, which I was taught myself during my social anthropology undergraduate and postgraduate studies. So I suspect we would end up on that polarising merry go round, not to mention to get into the HG literature in appropriate depth would require much more time and effort than this comment thread allows (indeed, you’ve written a book on the subject). However, I’d still happily wager that anyone who sees modern society as being the cause of our murderous impulses is idealising the past.

  15. Larry Stout

    Although humans always have been fully capable of homicide, and doubtless always have killed each other, there can be no doubt also that the still-escalating overcrowding consequent upon agriculture and sedentism has provided ever more opportunity and circumstance of conflict leading to homicide, including the mass homicides of war. If you never bump into someone, you do not kill him (“bump” to include drone surveillance, of course).

  16. Gyrus

    @Cris, thanks for the info, got any references handy for the recent chimp violence consensus? I keep meaning to catch up, e.g. reading this. One day! I suspect there’s more than one consensus out there 😉

    It’s dismaying that the issue is simplified so much, though. For example, data from the last 20 years, how are their social dynamics affected by chimps being an endangered species, with “deforestation and commercial hunting for bushmeat … taking a terrible toll on most populations“? And if we’re looking out our genetic heritage, what about the bonobo, an equally close cousin? And what about a sophisticated understanding of what genetics actually implies, and doesn’t imply? Does a higher proportion of violence observed recently say anything about the pre-Goodall observations of more peaceable chimps? Don’t we have to accept at a certain point that there are the rudiments of cultural variation among chimps, and “hard-wired” isn’t so hard-wired after all? (One of the implications of the Great Ape Project for me.) Even Pinker says: “Violence is a social and political problem, not just a biological and psychological one.”

    However, I’d still happily wager that anyone who sees modern society as being the cause of our murderous impulses is idealising the past.

    Indeed! The problem is that this is a straw man, a position you won’t find put forward by anyone who’s serious about the research. Anyone with half a brain sees that it’s not about simple causality, but about simple HG life lowering the threshold for organized violence (I’ll leave the important distinction between murder and war for now, cos it’s such a tricky distinction at HG social scales). Someone like Raymond Kelly is incredibly careful with their language:

    … the distinction between unsegmented and segmental organizational types successfully differentiates comparatively warless and warlike foragers, and … each of these organization designs also modulates the effects of other variables on the frequency of war. This is entirely consistent with the fundamental concept that war and society coevolve.

    And “warless” doesn’t mean “violenceless”. If anyone steps up and says there was no murder in the Palaeolithic, they’re obviously best ignored – I mean, they’re on a level with people who think that war is genetically encoded. Could we show all these people the door? 😉

  17. Chris Kavanagh


    A good start would be the 2003 review ‘Intergroup relations in Chimpanzees’ by Wilson & Wrangham. However, this is the tip of the iceberg and again I would disagree that there is no consensus amongst primatologists on the issue. Whether it is appropriate to draw analogies between common chimpanzees intergroup conflicts and human conflicts is a separate issue, as is the issue of Bonobo sociality. My original response and the follow up were addressing the claim that Jane Goodall was responsible for creating a myth that common chimpanzees are a violent species- it’s not a myth. Even if you read Frans De Waal’s recent ‘The Athiest and the Bononobo’ which emphasises the importance of the positive aspects of our primate cousins, he makes no attempt to deny the fact that common chimpanzees are an aggressive species. Indeed, he explicitly contrasts their social behaviour with the more peaceable bonobos.

    As regards the supposedly peaceable behaviour of chimpanzees pre-Goodall, what are such claims based on? Not detailed observation and study of them in their natural environments, since systematic observations didn’t really begin until the mid twentieth century and many of the claims about their character and ability from earlier stories are now known to be completely false. Similarly, cultural variation in chimpanzees has been studied in quite some depth, with Andrew Whiten producing a seminal paper on chimpanzee cultural variation in 1999 and a decade of research which has further deepened our knowledge. However, while there certainly is impressive variation, such variation is not infinite and there is clearly a shared latent zone, one significant piece of which is male intra and inter-group violence.

    It’s also good to hear that no-one seriously contends that HG violence doesn’t exist/isn’t significant but this is the implication I took from Bob’s comments that “To me, the clear lesson is that as long as we are hunter-gatherers, our violent murderous chimp nature is suppressed and unneeded.” Perhaps, I was being unfair but suggesting that violent natures are suppressed and unneeded in HG societies still seems somewhat idealistic to me.

  18. Gyrus

    @Cris, many thanks for all that. I was definitely not trying to suggest that chimpanzee violence was a “myth”, just that the concept of them being “a violent species” is not a fact – rather it’s a value-laden generalisation judgement based on the fact of observations of violence. It’s this murky zone between scientific observation (the fact of chimpanzee violence), judgement (the idea of “a violent species”), and popular debate (the implications of this for ideas of “ingrained” or “acquired” violence in humans) that I’m interested in. The furrows created by this debate skew everything – I think we may have been subtly misreading each other at times thanks to these furrows.

    I got the info about pre-Goodall observations from Jim Moore’s review of Power cited above. Will definitely follow up his and your references when I get time to revisit this.

    “To me, the clear lesson is that as long as we are hunter-gatherers, our violent murderous chimp nature is suppressed and unneeded.” I would say suppressed or mitigated. Humans developed much more sophisticated cultural methods of resolution. Unneeded is idealistic. But then again, Bob possibly dub himself into a hole by saying “violent nature”. Our genes certainly enable or allow violence, but predispose or compel? At best it’s a complex topic, and the phrase “violent nature” has all sorts of misleading resonance that unfortunately leads to polarization.

  19. Chris Kavanagh


    Thanks for the thoughtful comments and I certainly agree that the issues surrounding any species being labelled as violent are complex and open to anthropocentrism/overinterpretation. However, I don’t think this makes the “violent chimp” characterisation false or misleading, as long as those utilising it are doing so while acknowledging that common chimpanzees are complex social animals and certainly also have empathetic and prosocial aspects of their character.

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